Written by: Justine Hebert Dinesen, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
A month ago, I attended a course that completely turned my world upside down. In this course, I was shown how overthinking can be the source of many mental health problems and how I can help my clients to think less. It felt almost too good to be true. But after having personally trained myself to let go of my negative thoughts for a month, I only got more enthusiastic about this method.
Metacognitive therapy (MCT) is a new form of therapy based on the idea that what makes us mentally ill is the fact that we spend too much time ruminating and worrying. Therefore, Metacognitive therapy targets specific psychological processes that are involved in the control of thinking to enable its patients to free themselves from rumination and worry. According to initial studies, 70% of patients recovered from anxiety and depression by learning to spend less time thinking about what was preoccupying them.
I had never been aware that thinking too much could be an issue before and neither did my clients. But, the more I dug into it, the more it made sense. When we know that every thought is linked to a feeling, it is reasonable to believe that spending many hours a day worrying or ruminating on negative thoughts can lead to stress, anxiety or depression. Furthermore, I have always noticed that when my clients didn’t feel well, they often had something that would take up all their attention, what I usually call a little engine constantly running in the back of their heads. This is what I had identified to be draining and eventually lead to stress.
Although it can be beneficial to spend time thinking, it becomes a problem when we start spending a major part of our day thinking. When asked, some of my clients reported ruminating or worrying 6, 12 or even up to 24 hours a day. Addressing the issue of overthinking was therefore the right solution to help these patients feel better.
So how does it work?
The whole idea is to learn to control our thoughts. We usually have 70 000 thoughts per day, some are positive, some are factual, and some are negative. We can’t do anything about the ideas that pop up in our minds but we can control what we decide to think about and how long we want to spend thinking about that particular thought. It only requires awareness and practice.
The problem is that most of us are not aware of what we spend time thinking about. We usually ruminate and worry unconsciously and these thoughts usually bring other negative thoughts, leading us into a vicious spiral. For example, we think of something that happened which we wished we had reacted differently and start thinking “I am so stupid”, “I shouldn’t have said that, I should have stayed quiet instead”, and that leads to other thoughts such as, “it’s also typical me, I always say things that are stupid, it couldn’t go well now that I was there” and so on. Or we think about things that could potentially happen such as, “What if the bus had an accident and they all got killed” and start thinking about how horrible it would be. These self-destructive and alarmist thoughts can lead to depression and anxiety.
However, sometimes we spend a lot of time thinking because we think it helps us to find a solution to our problems, to make a decision, or to prepare for something. This is the type of overthinking that usually leads to stress. Besides, our stress symptoms can be amplified when we start worrying about whether these are just stress symptoms or whether we have other more serious health-related issues.
Here are 7 tips to help you think less:
Addressing overthinking requires that the patients are made aware of their trigger thoughts, how long they spend ruminating or worrying a day, as well as the reason why they do so, and what are the consequences of them overthinking. But more importantly, it requires that the patients believe that they can control their thoughts, learn to practice leaving triggering thoughts alone and that dedicating focused time to think those specific thoughts can be far more productive then constantly thinking about them.
Identify your trigger thoughts creating rumination and worry: A trigger thought is the main thought that usually brings other negative thoughts leading to a vicious spiral. It can be “I am not good enough”, “What if I am not able to perform in this new job” or “What can I do with this issue at work”.
Identify how long you spend a day ruminating or worrying. How long do you spend thinking about these trigger thoughts per day? Write down on a piece of paper the amount of hours a day you spend thinking those thoughts.
Understand the reasons behind your overthinking: What do you want to get out by thinking these thoughts? Do you want to prepare yourself, find a solution or does it just happen unconsciously without necessarily serving any purpose? Sometimes we find ourselves spending a lot of time thinking negative things about ourselves that do not serve a purpose or imagining scenarios that never end up being a reality.
Understand the consequences of spending a major part of the day worrying and ruminating. What are the consequences of you spending that much time ruminating and worrying? Often my patients answer that it makes them feel bad, gives them stress, anxiety and prevents them from feeling present in their lives.
Understand that you are the one in control of your thoughts. Many of us are not aware that we can control our thoughts. But we can. If you are aware of what you are thinking about you can decide whether you want to go on thinking that thought or think about something else. It only requires awareness and practice. During coaching sessions, we work with targeted exercises to help you be in control of your thoughts.
Learn to leave triggering thoughts alone: You can train yourself in letting your trigger thoughts be. The aim is not to push these negative thoughts away nor replace them with positive thoughts, but to learn to let them be without digging into them. This is also something that we train through specific exercises during coaching sessions.
Establish a fixed time allocated to thinking per day: Instead of using too many hours a day thinking, you can practice postponing all rumination and worry until a fixed time during the day. This fixed time shouldn’t last longer than 30 minutes to an hour. It is a good way to free-up some mental space during the day while still fulfilling the need to think about your problems and eventually find solutions to solve these issues.
Metacognitive therapy is a great tool to help us be aware of our thinking pattern, the impact it has on us and shows us how to take control over thoughts. It is an efficient method to reduce overthinking and to be more present in our lives. I believe that combined with other tools, such as regular cognitive therapy and coaching, it can achieve even better results to reduce stress, depression and anxiety.
Justine Hebert Dinesen, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Justine Hebert Dinesen is a certified and experienced Life and Stress Coach, speaker, and wellbeing consultant. Besides conducting one-on-one coaching online and in-person in Copenhagen, over the past several years, she has held numerous workshops and courses both inside and outside of Denmark. Justine herself experienced an extreme period of stress while working as a Bid Manager for a large renewable energy company, a personal experience that ultimately led Justine down a new and highly rewarding career path, informing and helping others to prevent or alleviate stress and its symptoms and consequences in their lives. Thanks to her English, French, and Danish fluency, she can reach a wide audience across borders, helping them attain goals, shift into new career paths, navigate difficult decisions, improve their self-esteem, and generally renew their spark for life.
Pia Callesen, 2017, Lev mere, tænk mindre.
Pia Callesen, David Reeves,Calvin Heal, Adrian Wells, May 2020, Metacognitive Therapy versus Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in Adults with Major Depression: A Parallel Single-Blind Randomised Trial. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-64577-1
Shang J.R. Olsen, MCT for depression 8 things you wish you knew sooner. https://metacognitivetherapycentral.com/mct-for-depression-8-things-you-wish-y ou-knew-sooner/